Search The Line of Best Fit
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Release date: 17 February 2014
Phantogram – Voices
17 February 2014, 15:30 Written by Erik Thompson

Phantogram has occasionally been portrayed in the past as a little band that could. But there has never been anything remotely small about the enthralling electro-pop sound of the duo from Greenwich, N.Y., or the rapidly expanding fan base that has grown right along with the group. Their music has always been more expansive and stylishly metropolitan that the humble confines of the upstate New York barn where it was born, as Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have consistently injected a modern pulse and intoxicating texture into their swelling songs. Their material also has a broad, universal appeal, while still sounding fresh and innovative, no small feat in the continuously fickle climes of the current music scene.

After enticing their patient fans with 2013′s self-titled EP (all four tracks of which are included on the new album), Barthel and Carter have accelerated both their artistic aims as well as the creative stakes by finally getting around to releasing their second full-length, Voices, four years after their well-received debut, Eyelid Movies. And while Phantogram’s edgy sonic palette and mercurial tenor has stayed relatively the same between records (other than adding the major label hit making polish of co-producer John Hill), the best of their new songs have a sprawling, self-assured quality to them, with many of their studied, inspired arrangements taking the band’s contemporary sound to thrilling new heights.

But those occasional highs are frequently paired with meandering low moments where the band are leaning too heavily on the familiar song structures that took their music to the responsive masses in the first place, as much of their new material cautiously sticks too close to the ethereal sonic template that initially caught our attention. During its brightest points, the new album is packed with elegant tonal flourishes and sweeping electronic excursions, driven along by haunting keyboard strains, magnetic guitar riffs, and mesmerizing beats which perfectly compliment the raw emotional sentiments layered within the heart of the songs themselves. But there are also sections where the band don’t seem to be pushing their creative limits or taking any substantial risks. Tracks pass by pleasantly enough but fail to make much of lasting impact nor distinguish themselves from the overall flow of the album or the rest of Phantogram’s dream-pop drenched catalog.

Voices does get off to a glorious start with “Nothing But Trouble,” a churning, insistent track built on a towering beat that propels Barthel’s resonant vocals ever forward. The pulsating opening number contains echoes of the ominous, saturnine quality of The Knife, a trend towards dark moodiness that continues throughout the rest of the solemn album. Anyone familiar with last year’s Phantogram EP is already well aware of the dreamy, staccato charms of “Black Out Days,” a massively catchy track that anchors the strong start to the record, one which boldly catches the listeners attention with its beguiling grooves. But the band fails to keep up that feverish tempo, and the album’s bewitching beginning quickly gives way to less inspired, repetitive numbers that plague a majority of the record, especially its weak second half.

“Fall In Love” has a sinister disco sound to it, as the slinky number gradually blossoms into a spirited chorus that suggests the feeling of euphoria contained in the title. While the leisurely guitar melody at the start of “Never Going Home” is reminiscent of late-period Radiohead, Carter’s muted vocals fail to give the sentimental song much of a kick and the meandering track never finds a spark. “The Day You Died” is another instantly recognizable number from the duo’s last EP, but, as was the case with “Never Going Home,” it lacks the compelling punch of “Black Out Days,” and when combined with the colorless and bland “Howling At The Moon,” the record settles in to a bit of a tepid lull at its middle point that it struggles to fully snap out of.

With as much time that has passed between albums, you’d think that Phantogram wouldn’t run out of creative gas by the second half, but after the slow-burning allure of “Bad Dreams,” the diaphanous Beach House-lite of “Bill Murray” once again drags the record down. Carter regrettably gets a bit experimental on “I Don’t Blame You,” and the edgy, chopped beats of the track never coalesce entirely while also managing to sound remarkably out of place on this uneven collection. The song, along with much of the record’s second side, drifts by rather aimlessly without hitting its mark or leaving much of a lasting impression.

The polished, urgent pulse of “Celebrating Nothing” briefly gets the record back on track, but again, we’ve heard it before, so we’re once more left looking towards the truly new songs for fresh artistic statements from the band. And most of those numbers sadly fail to deliver on the creative promise suggested by their recent EP as well as their stellar debut. Voices comes to a graceful if unsatisfying close with the mournful ache of “My Only Friend,” a somber number that unfortunately takes too long to reveal its intentions and ultimately ends up missing much of its moment entirely, like much of the record itself.

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